The Pedagogy of Truth — Or, How Not to Handle Gozer the Gozerian

I once attended a social dinner and discussion group with a number of conservative-minded academics, businesspersons, and representatives of the legal profession. It was a pleasant evening. The group came to the agreement that mainstream American society was a moral and intellectual disaster. The entrée was overcooked chicken. All in attendance loudly agreed that schools and colleges were to blame for this disaster (the societal one, not the chicken), but that the dessert was tasty. There was a great deal of head-nodding and vehement grandstanding of the sort that opinionated persons engage in when they believe themselves to be in a circle of entirely like-minded comrades: think of a group of Dallas Cowboys fans after a victory, or septuagenarian bachelors talking over their Styrofoam cups of truly awful coffee after the Latin Mass.

This gathering was penetrating in its diagnosis of our 21st-century problems: moral relativism, sexual license, Obama, irreligion, multiculturalism, and also Obama. But as keen as their diagnoses were, collectively they came up a little short in the solutions area. I would have started with rare beef instead of dry chicken, but no one asked me.

One particularly respected member of the gathering, a reputedly-sagacious figure of some prominence at a very large public university that buys significant ad space on buses and billboards, was sure he had the answer to our civilizational maladies. “I would have every college freshman read the Ten Commandments,” he solemnly proclaimed. More heads nodded. But all I could think of was a line from Ghostbusters: “That oughta do it—thanks very much, Ray.

The professor’s idea was, of course, well-intentioned, as was Ray Stantz’s initial approach to Gozer. It was also what we professionals in the field of education call pedagogically inappropriate, which is a technical term approximately equivalent to what you lay persons mean by “total crap,” except less nuanced.

The idea that simply requiring the first-year cohort at ASU to “read the Ten Commandments” will result in their moral and intellectual regeneration is an example of superstitious/magical thinking as applied to an educational problem. Granted, the Decalogue is necessary because it orders man towards his supernatural end, in addition to at least three other reasons I can’t remember. Granted, the freshman class in the aggregate does not live according to the Decalogue’s precepts. But the problem does not have a self-evident and simple solution. What exactly does Professor Prudence imagine that “reading” the Ten Commandments will yield other than nonchalant shrugs, a few eye rolls, resumption of texting friends and posting to Instagram as usual after the briefest of interruptions, and of course a legion of complaints to the Campus Diversity Commissariat for failing to protect fragile, coddled, radically-autonomous selves from the trauma triggered by the words “THOU SHALT NOT”?

Alone, dragging your eyes over the Ten Commandments and even mouthing the words will not engender a life of moral and religious observance any more than staring at the score of Mozart’s Requiem will make you a musician. Or an orchestra, for that matter, or dead at your own funeral. Something else is needed. Telling people to do stuff that they have no particular desire to do, or to cease things that they really enjoy doing is often, as parents with any children under the age of 30 will have experienced, not particularly effective. The shortest distance between two points in space is a straight line, but in matters of molding the human soul, the apparently shortest and most direct route is often the least effective. Or rather: when teaching the most important and difficult things, there simply is no short path that can reach the destination. All possible routes are circuitous, lengthy, laborious, sometimes even meandering. To try to yank the soul and pull it taut between A and B risks snapping it. When it comes to teaching truth that is deeper than facts because it makes all the facts make sense, truth that, rather than being grasped, grasps us, often against our will, truth that will lay hold of us and gird us and carry us whither we would not (Jn 21:18), we cannot rush it or force it.

Why is it that, so often, we think that the way to communicate truth is simply to tell it to others as clearly and as bluntly as we can? That such things are simple matters of instruction? That truth is just “content”, and the more efficient the means of delivery the better? That we can quickly lead others via the express Great Glass Wonkavator to the Seventh Heaven? In my eleven years as a communicant in the Catholic Church, I have seen this naïve approach to the deepest truths more than a few times.

For a few years early in my Catholic life, I was in a men’s group at a parish, and we were using some discussion materials produced by a (now-disgraced) major religious order and lay apostolate. The purpose of the study group was a good one: read through a few major papal encyclicals and meet once a week to discuss. And though the scripted discussion questions were a little flat, the real problem was with the leaders’ manual, which purported to offer scripted answers to these questions. And the instructions in the leaders’ manual were quite clear: after everyone has shared their responses to the question, the leader must read the provided answer aloud. This format led to some very comical moments in the study group, as we would often have wide-ranging and rich conversations that drew upon theology, scripture, history, philosophy, personal experiences, the lives and teachings of the saints—and then it would all be brought to a screeching halt by the stilted “answer” read aloud at the end. (Particularly amusing was the leaders’ manual’s treatment of questions like “Talk about a time when you struggled with this issue in your own family;” the key would helpfully note ANSWERS WILL VARY. One would hope.)

Once my wife had an idea for a study and discussion group with a group of women from the parish. She proposed to some friends that, instead of continuing to read titles from the seemingly-inexhaustible genre of Catholic women’s self-help books (e.g. A Mom’s Guide to Not Going Completely Insane; With St. Scholastica in the Laundry Room), they might read some texts of a different genre, perhaps talks or short essays by then-Pope John Paul II, or then-Cardinal Ratzinger. A close friend of hers gave a not-atypical response: “Yeah! That would be great! And then maybe once a month we could have Father Omniscient come and tell us what the books mean!” Well, then, why not just dispense with the books and the reading and the discussion? Straight to the answers…

On another occasion, I was chatting with a fine and faithful young priest, and he was quite frank about the heterodox shambles that was the theology and catechism program at a particular Catholic high school. Nearly all of the instructors had taken their degrees from mainstream Jesuit universities; only a minority of the teachers were regular mass-goers. But a sure-fire solution was on its way: “Next year, they’re gonna have to use these new Ignatius Press textbooks. I mean, it’s straight orthodoxy—there’ll be pretty much nothing they can do except teach the Faith. Period.” Again, the thinking here: truth is just content, the teacher is a neutral content-delivery-mechanism, and direct exposure suffices for teaching. This is the opposite of what would solve the problem: keep the same curriculum, but replace all the teachers with good ones who are faithful and on fire and brilliant. Good tools in the hands of an unskilled artisan are of little use, but the skilled craftsman makes fine things even with poor tools.

You can’t teach someone how to play the violin via manual, or how to speak a foreign language by telling them what to do. Why do we think we can adequately communicate the deepest truths about man, God, and the cosmos through a simple information transfer?

I think that part of the issue is that we want to believe that teaching and learning about the most important things is straightforward and predictable, without mystery, uncertainty, or variability. We want to believe that the most important truths can be quickly and cleanly passed on like the flames from candle to candle at the Easter Vigil: I have it, I share it, now we both have it (and with a tiny bit of practice, this can be done without ever spilling a drop of wax on the trousers). We want to believe that the human mind is like a vessel, passively waiting to be filled by the efforts of the teacher, the homilist, the catechist, or what have you. This notion is comforting. Stuff like learning the violin or how to read the Old Testament in Hebrew or what the Summa Theologiae is all about—well, that’s all HARD, but thank goodness it’s unnecessary. I mean if you’re into that, fine. But it’s a good thing that the truths that REALLY matter in an eternal sense can just be reduced to some basic proposition or maybe ten precepts and passed directly to others for simple comprehension.

There are a few problems with this view: two of them might be a) that activities such as learning music or the Summa might not quite be the unaffordable, out-of-most-people’s-grasp luxuries they are assumed to be, and b) learning—really LEARNING, not grasping but being grasped by—the deepest of truths might not be so easy at all.   

I think we also long for systems that are foolproof. The variability and unreliability of human agents is too great for us to bear—after all, we are all FOOLS, teachers and learners alike. We are, rightly, worried about the damage that fools can do when they start handling truth. So we try to script it. We produce answer keys for discussion questions. We invest countless hours in packaging curricula and methods that, if skillfully deployed, will very often give the appearance of the occurrence of teaching and learning. When we do this—attempt to build foolproof learning systems that circumvent pesky people and get us from point A to point B with maximum speed and efficiency,—we proceed as if we agree with one V. I. Lenin, that great visionary of modernity, who once said “Most people cannot think. It is enough if they just learn the words.” Script it out; drill the lines; put on show.

Lest we think it is only sinister-looking foreigners with pointy beards and rolled-R accents who think such things about their fellow man, let me point out that there is a direct route between Lenin’s above-cited educational thesis and the minds of the mad men who crafted the winning campaign slogan of the 1952 US presidential race, “I LIKE IKE.” After all, most people cannot understand policies and issues. It is enough if they just learn a catchy jingle….

Thomas Jefferson: As long as the press is free and men can read, all is secure.

Political Ad Man: Oh yeah? Well, get a load of this!

Jefferson: Oh, s___t. We pledged our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor for THIS? I’m moving to England.

Ad Man: You mean the place where this bloke was Labour Party candidate for Prime Minister, the highest office in the Realm?

Jefferson: Good heavens. What’s wrong with that fellow?

Ad Man: Nothing. The perfect candidate. Says exactly what he’s told to say by the handlers. Most POLITICIANS cannot think. It is enough for them just to learn the words…

Ego sum via et veritas et vita: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” If Truth is a person, then it cannot be downloaded, cannot be grasped at a glimpse; it can be met, made acquaintance with, befriended by, walked and dwelt with, and gotten to know ever more deeply and intimately over a lifetime. The first encounter with truth can be a shock on the road to Damascus, but it could just as well be, and perhaps more often it is, an apparently-unremarkable, seemingly-chance meeting on the way to Emmaus. The form will imprint itself upon our souls when the encounter is iterative and durative.

I once read an account of the arrival of Jesuit and Dominican missionaries together in the court of the Chinese Emperor at some point in the Baroque past. As the story goes, the Jesuits begged imperial permission to stay in the capital city and study Chinese language, literature, and history for a decade—this was what they judged would be necessary preparation before they attempted to utter one word of the gospel to the hyper-civilized pagans of the alien Middle Kingdom.

The story also tells that the Dominicans presented the emperor with a Latin vulgate Bible, informed him it was the word of God, and advised that he read it for the sake of his eternal soul. I suspect that the emperor served them overcooked chicken that evening.

Andrew Ellison